Now Sony's admitted to partnering Shenmue 3, that Kickstarter is a big problem

No story from this year's E3 has been bigger than Sony's Earth-shaking (or at least Twitter-rattling) three-hit combo announcement of The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy 7 remake, and Shenmue 3. It was exciting. Hell, it felt impossible. But when all the screaming and crying died down, I found one question fluttering around my head, refusing to leave.

Just why the hell is a mega-corp platform-holder advertising Yu Suzuki's Kickstarter?

There were options, but none of them sat right with me. Was Sony simply giving the Shenmue creator a massive platform on which to announce his fundraising campaign, in exchange for console exclusivity? It seemed probable, but if Sony knew the PR value of the project, why wasn’t it getting behind it wholesale, with a real publishing deal and real publisher money? And speaking of money, how was the requested two million going to be enough to sequel two previous titles whose combined development cost 24 times that?

Or was Sony planning to use Suzuki’s (inevitably bountiful) Kickstarter money to part-fund the game, putting in the other half of the cash itself? If so, that felt rather cheap, but there was no mention, either on stage or on Shenmue 3's Kickstarter page, that that would be the case. Indeed, Suzuki's team's game was introduced as "very much their project", and the game's video presentation even ended with the director stating that ‘the fate of Shenmue is in your hands now’. That sounded pretty clear. This was an indie project that would legitimately live or die on public donations. But it still felt weird.

Today we discovered the truth. That truth lies somewhere between the above two possibilities, and rather uncomfortably so, for me. Sony is indeed partnering on the development of Shenmue 3, with an undisclosed budget. But it felt the need to take a large chunk of public money before it committed.

“Sony and PlayStation is definitely a partner in this game,” says Sony’s director of third-party relations, Gio Corsi, “and it’s going to be run through third-party production. We’re going to help Ys Net get the game done, we’re going to be partners on it the whole way, and really excited to see this thing come out in a couple of years”.

It turns out, as Corsi goes on, that Shenmue 3’s Kickstarter was a test to see just how committed players are to the series. Everyone said they wanted it, but did they want it enough to prove that with money as well as forum posts?

“We said ‘the only way this is gonna happen is if the fans speak up. We thought Kickstarter was the perfect place to do this. We set a goal of two million dollars, and if the fans come in and back it, then absolutely we’re going to make this a reality.”

There's little doubt that Sony is helping to pay for Shenmue 3. If a decent chunk of the company's own money wasn't on the line, why would it desire that fan commitment? So working on the basis that Sony is paying, why was it deemed acceptable to run the Kickstarter as it was run, and only reveal this partnership after public money had been accrued via some very large personal donations? I could start throwing around a lot of strong terms here, but – if only because I don’t know exactly how the balance of funding will play out - I won’t. I’ll very carefully draw the line at ‘misleading’, and leave it at that.

The Kickstarter page makes no mention of external partners at all, let alone one with the power to “make this a reality”. Instead, it implies a staunchly independent, self-sufficient development, discussing the two million dollar request as a complete budget requirement:

“The real challenge now is to deliver a sequel that we will all be satisfied with after 14 years of waiting. After much research and planning, we set the funding goal at this level believing it will make possible a fulfilling Shenmue experience.

“With regards to development of the game, we have an experienced team, deeply connected with the Shenmue franchise. With modern tools, experienced professionals, and the community of Shenmue by our sides, we have set ourselves up for success.”

Here’s where I start having a real problem with the way this has been run. Because however I spin it (and believe me, I’ve spun it like a tumble drier), I keep coming back to the same bottom line. Individual members of the public have paid up to ten thousand dollars of their own money for a game they were led to believe had no other funding options. A game they were led to believe needed that money in order to happen. And that’s not okay.

In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case. It made that the case by making the public pass a test before it offered its own support, a test that it knew would cost the public hundreds and thousands.

Beyond the obvious financial issue, there’s a matter of philosophy here too. Because at its heart, Sony’s ‘build the list’ initiative - its pledge to make community-requested games happen, and the initiative that led to Shenmue 3 happening - is a program inherently tied to the taking of commercial risks. It is a program designed to let gamers voice their wishes for long-wanted, seemingly impossible projects. By definition, those wishes will not be for ‘safe’ games.

No-one is going to request another Killzone or Uncharted, because those games are going to happen. They’re proven, megaton hits, and Sony is going to keep making them until they stop being. By committing to ‘the list’ Sony openly committed to risky projects. That’s an admirable position to take, but it’s admirable in no small part because the responsibility for financial success or failure rests with the company taking it. Not the public. Not for $10k a pop. Not when the invitation of that money is presented unclearly at best, and with an air of the misleading if we’re going to be more critical.

More infuriating is the fact that there was an obvious, easy, inoffensive way to handle all of this. By limiting donation tiers to a single, flat, $50 rate, Shenmue 3’s Kickstarter could have been turned into an elaborate pre-order system, the same level of player commitment shown without anyone being extravagantly out of pocket, and the backer rewards becoming an extra special pre-order bonus, with added goodwill.

Sony says that it needed a Kickstarter to prove that people are serious about Shenmue 3. Fine. For the sake of argument, I’ll buy that. But this is Shenmue 3. It was always going to be funded, whether endorsed by a platform holder or promoted by a single, kanji tweet from Suzuki. Once word got around, it would have been over-funded in a day regardless. And at a lower cost of entry, even more might have bought in, especially if all parties had been open about what was going on.

Like I said, I don’t know exactly how much money Sony is stumping up now that we’ve thrown our wallets through its hoop and passed the test. If Shenmue 3 is being made on the cheap, it’s possible that Sony’s contribution might be as small as a like-for-like match. But that still raises the awkward question of how, if the overall budget is going to be so comparatively small, Sony didn’t just commit to covering the whole thing. But the worse, and possibly more likely, option is that the near three million already raised in public funds is a mere token drop of what Shenmue 3 is going to cost, rather than the budget so many donators believed the game needed to exist.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kickstarter is for developers with no other funding options. Shenmue 3 has had other options ever since Sony first started to think about it (as it transpires, in 2013), and whatever the platform-holder is now going to pay into the project, it can probably afford it somewhat more comfortably than some of the rest of us can our donations.